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When it comes to bicycle racing no event is more intense than the team time trial. This race against the clock between teams may be short in terms of time, but the riders must prepare themselves for weeks before tackling one of the most punishing efforts of the three-week Tour de France. And while the effort is short, it is likely the most labor-intensive discipline in the sport. Preparations start months out as riders perfect their position, and each piece of equipment is tried and tested in an effort to gain the slightest advantage.
“The TTT represents all of the science, all of the data, going into the shortest most intense effort,” said Matt Shriver, technical director of the Trek-Segafredo team. “The excitement and stress are unparalleled.” And in this year’s Tour, few teams are better placed to analyze the team time trial stage than Trek/Bontrager, which works with virtually every aspect of equipment used by the team on the TTT stage.
“When it comes to our time-trial bikes, it’s all about optimizing the whole package, everything that the rider is using, from the Bontrager Aeolus helmets to the Speed Concept bars, to the wheels,” Shriver said. “This all starts a long time ago as we try to get every rider the fastest TT package. We do wind-tunnel testing…and especially velodrome testing. Wind tunnels are great for getting everybody in a super-aero position, but it is on the velodrome where we find out if they can actually ride that position. It is better for actually testing a rider’s position.”
“I really like the adjustability of the Speed Concept bars,” said Toms Skujins, one of the Trek-Segafredo riders at this Tour. “Each rider can really dial-in their position and be the most comfortable.” The recently crowned Latvian national time trial champ, Skujins, who is making his Tour de France debut, was chosen in part because of his TT skills. He spent time analyzing the course and provided us with insights regarding how the team would attack the event, for while a TTT may be an all-out team effort, it also requires plenty of tactics.
“One of the biggest challenges for us is not overdoing it in the beginning and pacing the effort out over the entire distance as well as staying safe when we are all going full gas,” Skujins said. “It is all about working together. The guy at the front has to make sure that he doesn’t accelerate too hard when he comes through, because he doesn’t want to make it too hard for the guy pulling off to get back on.
“In addition, the TTT course itself is very rolling. It starts uphill and there is a good kick with 10 kilometers to go…. In a TTT, the goal is definitely not to finish as an entire team. The time is taken on the fourth rider. You need to finish with four riders as fast as you can. You know you are going lose riders along the course, but even though you only have to finish with four riders, it is safest to finish with five because, well, one of your riders can always have a mechanical.”
Technical choices are also studied continuously, with some final choices only being made on race day. The choice of the front wheel, for example, depends largely on the wind conditions. Before Monday’s stage, Skujins said, “We are still trying to decide if we want to go with a tri-spoke front wheel”. Shriver added, “If it is windy we will probably go with a 60mm front wheel. The tri-spoke is closer to a 70mm rim and we might opt for something just a little shallower, like a 60mm.”
As the mechanics readied their bikes right before the stage start, the Trek team opted to ride with the tri-spoke option. “It’s windy,” Shriver said at the team bus before the riders warmed up. “But it is not too windy to go with the tri-spoke option. And they really are ideal.”
Taking off as one of the final five teams, Trek-Segafredo hoped for a top-five finish. But the riders understood that they were starting with a handicap, because Tsgabu Grmay, a strong time trialist, was forced to abandon on Sunday’s stage 2 due to strong abdominal pains, so they lacked a big specialist. According to plan, the team used its riders strategically, ending with four riders and clocking a time a little more than a minute behind the day’s winner, BMC Racing.
But the riders’ performance was strong enough to keep team leader Bauke Mollema one minute 16 seconds behind the yellow jersey, now worn by BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet. But Mollema knows that the Tour de France is a three-week affair. Riders like Van Avermaet, a classics rider, will certainly fade in the high mountains. In many ways, the team time trial was just the beginning of this Tour for Mollema and Trek-Segafredo.